Manipur is riddled with ethnic conflicts, insurgency and AIDS, but the people find hope in sports
|WARRIOR PRINCESSES: Girls at an archery class in Imphal.|
In 1892, the poet Rabindranath Tagore saw the kingdom of Manipur in a fresh light when he made its warrior princess, Chitrangada, the protagonist of a dance drama. A brave protector of her people, Chitrangada was a champion archer like her husband, Arjuna of the Mahabharat.
Shots of different kinds—drugs and bullets—have troubled the state of Manipur, where a violent separatist movement has been raging since 1964. Human rights violations by the paramilitary forces have forced Manipuri women to march in protest, stark naked. And yet, the state has produced 50 champion boxers. The most famous of them, Mary Kom, is a five-time world boxing champion. She is the only Indian woman boxer to have won a medal at the Olympics. Several other athletes from Manipur have made India proud.
Dingko Singh won a gold medal at the 1998 Asian Games. Kunjarani Devi, with 52 medals, is one of the most feted Indian sportswomen in weightlifting. The 'Maradona of Hockey', Thoiba Singh, is another international player from Manipur, and Renedy Singh is a well-known professional footballer.
I am on a visit to the various sports camps in Imphal, and the games village at Langol, which is close to the state capital. Mary Kom's boxing academy in Imphal, established in 2006, focuses on talented underprivileged youth who are offered free training, accommodation and food. The other sports academies in Manipur are run by the Sports Authority of India, the National Sports Academy and the state sports department.
Youth from different ethnic groups of Manipur flock to these academies for training. For them, practising a sport is a way of establishing their social identity. Ignoring the politics of violence and repression, they motivate themselves, to carry on with their rigorous training.
“The number of students coming into boxing has certainly increased. They come from different districts of Manipur,” says Ibomcha Singh, the boxing coach who received the Dronacharya award in 2010. “It is not easy. One has to be careful all the time. One ethnic group has been threatening action [against me]. As a safety measure, I desist from using a mobile phone. But the daily training continues without any interruption.”
He is confident of the talent he has seen in the boys and girls. “Some of them will definitely make a mark on the national front,” he says.
Watching girls and boys sparring in the boxing ring, I am overwhelmed by the equality of spirit and gender. A slogan on a wall of the room reads, “No risk. No game.” Somebody had tweaked a popular saying and made it a telling comment on the troubled condition of Manipur.
Sporting facilities in the city are far from ideal. At the SAI complex, one large hall, which has the boxing ring at its centre is also the venue for judo, fencing and weight-lifting.
At the SAI facility is a stadium where hockey coach Inaocha is training a group of young girls. On another part of the complex, the archers are at practice. Coach Sonachand Sharma calls the shots here.
Mary Kom's Olympic medal has given the youth of Manipur the confidence to pursue sports as a decent means of survival. But it is far from a level playing field for aspiring athletes. Ethnic conflicts, militancy, extortion and drug addiction loom large in the lives of Manipuris. Though Manipuris make up less than 0.2 per cent of the country's population, their state has nearly 8 per cent of HIV positive cases in India.
It is a test of resilience for the sporty people of Manipur, where against all odds the quest for excellence continues.